The Pursuit of Pandemics

By Jake Myers

Pursuing deadly diseases through extensive study in jungles across the globe is just another day for Nathan Wolfe, the “Indiana Jones” of virus hunting. Wolfe will be speaking at Stambaugh Auditorium Thursday.

After receiving his doctorate in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from Harvard University in 1998, Wolfe has spent his life studying deadly viruses to detect worldwide disease pandemics before they kill millions.

According to Wolfe’s biography, the biologist coordinates over 100 scientists and staff in order to spot viruses and predict the potentiality of an outbreak.

Wolfe’s team collects and catalogues blood samples, surveys wild animals, scans urban blood banks and documents how diseases are transferred and distributed.

Data gleaned from a dozen field sites in Cameroon, China, Malaysia and other countries have led to the discovery of a number of previously unknown infectious agents, notably simian foamy and t-lymphotropic viruses that emerged from primate reservoirs and spread to humans.

Youngstown State University students have a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear Wolfe speak, according to Jackie LeViseur, the director of university events.

“I think he’ll appeal to a very unique population that we haven’t hit upon before,” LeViseur said. “But I think he would be appealing to everybody with the stuff that he is going to be sharing.”

As with all Skeggs Lectures, tickets are free but you must have a ticket to attend. Lectures are funded by the Skeggs Family Foundation, not university money, explained LeViseur.

The Skeggs Lecture Series began in 1966 by the Skeggs Foundation in honor of Leonard T. Skeggs, Sr., according to Jodi Skeggs Naji, the vice president of Skeggs Foundation.

“Usually when we have these speakers come in, we try to schedule them for different projects throughout the day so he [Wolfe] will be doing a news conference, and then a private dinner.  He will be doing a student presentation, this lecture and then a book signing after the lecture,” LeViseur said.

Wolfe will be signing his book, “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age,” published in 2011.

“Viral Storm” takes the reader on research expeditions with Wolfe, while he explains how viruses and human beings evolve side-by-side and why humans are vulnerable to a pandemic.

After the Skeggs Lecture, consider sticking around for the book signing.

“It’s a really nice benefit to campus and community that we get these experts coming in and you can come listen to them, learn, and experience something that you normally wouldn’t,” LeViseur said.

In fact, YSU students are encouraged to recommend potential lecturers.

“I am always open to suggestions if they have any speaker that they would like to hear,” LeViseur said. “There is a board that discusses the speakers and who they think would make a nice fit.”

“We meet once a year, officially and then we do a lot of the picking via email and all,” Naji said. “Jackie LeViseur does a lot; she does a lot of the footwork.”

“George McCloud had come up with an idea that we kind of cycle through having a science person, a political person, a literary person, someone from the arts,” Naji said.

The Skeggs Lectures are scheduled twice a year with one in the early fall and one in the early spring.

The lecturer for next April is Raymond Kelly, who was the New York City Commissioner during 9-11. Kelly has a history in law enforcement and is a Marine.

“So, as you can see, going from Nathan Wolfe to Raymond Kelly, we try to keep the speakers diverse and of interest to everybody,” LeViseur said.

Tickets are available now at Stambaugh Auditorium. Pick up your tickets in person or call 330-259-0555. Hours are weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., or Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.